Monday, December 14, 2009

Feminist Pedagogy in the Dance Classroom: Whose Story are We Telling?

Feminist Pedagogy in the Dance Classroom: Whose Story are We Telling?

American public education has experienced deep changes over the last twenty years. Never before have educators been so encouraged to recognize the various perspectives students bring to the classroom. Pedagogical approaches that support diversity and encourage the inclusion of all student perspectives, not just the privileged “majority,” have risen in popularity and practice. Feminist pedagogy is just one of many contemporary initiatives employed in the classroom by educators to reach “all” students.

In the dance classroom, feminist pedagogy can be employed in a number of ways, including through ”self-exploration by the teacher as well as by students” and a “greater attention to social justice” (Garber , Sandell, Stankiewicz & Risner, 2007 p. 368 ). A teacher might also use a curriculum of “embodiment” that celebrates aspects of the female gender that have traditionally been ignored or removed from classroom conversations: “young girls can celebrate sexuality and affirm pleasure and desire; and at the same time, reconnect sexuality to the responsibilities and ethics of human relationships” (Garber et al, 2007 p. 368). But one cannot talk about feminist pedagogy in dance without also acknowledging feminist content; dance educators have the potential to reveal the hidden curriculum in dance classes “that reinforces traditional gender expectations for girls” (Garber et al, 2007 & Stinson, 2005). Indeed, practitioners who employ feminist pedagogy will also analyze gender construction in the dance classroom as it is a critical aspect of the approach, and this truly serves students of both genders, not just females.

Historical Perspectives of Feminist Pedagogy

Early in the development of American art education, educators sought to address the needs of female students for their schooling differed from their male counterparts. In the 19th century, when the American public education system was taking root, female students were denied access to the same education as male students, “In the early years of the century, girls had few opportunities for schooling generally, let alone education in the arts” (Efland, 1990 p. 142). Special schools were developed to educate female students in art education. Unlike male students who were encouraged to study art as a way to further their careers upon graduation, female students in the late 19th century were taught traditional forms of art befitting of their role in society:

Private schools for women began to appear for the daughters of wealthy families, and in these schools singing and drawing was introduced in a kind of ‘finishing’ school treatment, which also included education, literature and French. Girls were taught these things primarily to equip them for marriage (Efland, 1990 p. 143).

Mary Ann Stankiewicz (2001) also notes that male and female students were treated differently in the early years of American public education: “Young ladies were expected to enjoy sewing and other domestic arts; their activities were supposed to center on the home,” as opposed to art education of young boys, which “was meant to be used outside the home” (p. 57). That female students were denied access to the type of education male students received is understood. The inequality described by Efland and Stankiewicz became the major motivating factor later in history for reformist approaches to education.

As early as the 1970s, critical theorists “questioned the tendency to take for granted the socioeconomic class structure and the ways in which curricula reproduce and maintain these structures” (Efland, 1991 p. 254). Such discourse gave way to critical pedagogy, feminist pedagogy and postmodern pedagogy. Each approach to educational reform sought to the right the inequalities inherent in American public education. The Civil rights movement, the first wave of feminism and other social action movements paved the way for educators to create and employ pedagogies of change, including feminist pedagogy.

As a practical approach to education, feminist pedagogy proliferated in the early 1990s (Webb, Allen & Walker, 2002) and was largely motivated by feminist research which “is, then, not just about women, [but] about the historical constitution of the category women and the mobilization of this category in generating meaning” (Desmond, 199 p. 309). Practitioners of this methodology seek to honor the individual’s voice, create a collaborative community of learners in the classroom, empower students and share knowledge respectfully with all shareholders (Webb et al, 2002). Particular emphasis is placed on shared or connected knowing, which is “found most often among women, [and] involves listening to the voices of self and others, trying to perceive the world through a variety of lenses” (Shapiro, 1998 p. 35). Classroom participants are truly encouraged to create connections with each other to support scholarly inquiry within a nurturing environment or community.

Understanding Feminist Pedagogy in the Dance Classroom

Traditional dance classes emphasize the teacher as the authority figure “and the only recognized source of authority” (Stinson, 1998 p. 27). Students are expected to copy the teacher’s movement as closely as possible; little room is left for students to interpret the teacher’s steps or to suggest new ways of approaching the movement. In fact, Susan Stinson (1998) concludes “most dance training consists of learning how to follow directions and how to follow them well” (p. 27). However, when a teacher uses feminist pedagogy in the dance classroom, he or she challenges the assumptions of a traditional dance class.

A student in a dance technique class is expected to move with his or her body. Such an environment poses a unique challenge when incorporating feminist pedagogy because all practical applications become increasingly personal. Shue and Beck (2001) assert that feminist pedagogy “allows scholars to focus not only on ‘patriarchal’ relations of power,’ but also on how communication… itself forms ‘individual identities and social relationships’” (p. 130). Teachers who use this approach to teach dance often consciously choose to not instruct students while facing a mirror, a standard practice in traditional dance classrooms. Instead, they de-emphasize the importance of students constantly evaluating the image of their dancing body in the mirror in favor of more intuitive self-reflection. Teachers may even go so far as to rescind traditional notions of dress in the dance classroom – tights, leotards and other types of revealing clothing – in favor of allowing students to choose clothing that makes them feel comfortable – even empowered – in front of their peers. The dancing body is held as the true source of wisdom; in the feminist pedagogical tradition, body stories must be nurtured, even if it means challenging standard dance practices (Shapiro, 1998).

Another aspect dance teachers employ when using feminist pedagogy is to create a collaborative learning environment between the teacher and students. This approach challenges the hierarchical structure of traditional dance classrooms, in which the teacher is seen as the only source of information. In feminist pedagogy, the teacher does not always have the right answer. No longer the sole authority figure, teachers readily admit when they do not know the answer to a question posed by a student. Likewise, the teacher assumes that he or she has as much to learn from the students and the students of them. The egalitarian environment created in these classrooms encourages students to “take ownership of their learning, and… teachers and students co-construct knowledge,” a hallmark aspect of feminist methodology (Shue and Beck, 2001 p. 132).

A dance teacher who practices feminist pedagogy in her or his classroom frequently encourages self-reflection by both the instructor and students, and many times this self-reflection leads to the development of curriculum that addresses issues of social justice (Garber et al, 2007). Sherry Shapiro (1998), editor of Dance, Power and Difference writes “a libratory pedagogy demands self-exploration by the teacher as well as by the students…It is both personal, in that it turns inward for reflections, and social, as this affective insight is reconnected to being in the world” (p. 14). For example, dance teachers may begin a dance technique class by teaching students about yield and push[1]. Students would explore moving into the floor and away from it. Eventually the dialogue about yield and push may shift away from the basics of movement dialogue towards a conversation about the way in which students yield to authority in their lives or push away from friends and families. The teacher may even encourage students to consider how the notion of yield and push reflects notions of power in Western society.

Finally, a dance instructor who teaches using feminist pedagogy will also develop his or her curriculum with an awareness of the social construction of gender (Garber et al, 2007). Teachers will challenge students to understand how gender is socially constructed and/or “demonstrated” in the classroom. The class will also develop an awareness of loaded language or phrases that connote a traditional/hierarchical image. Beck and Shue (2001) note that one dance instructor misguidedly thought she was engaging in feminist pedagogical practice by encouraging students to think of themselves as members of a large family so as to “privileg[e] a subtle matriarchal hierarchy that communicates clearly the roles that each dancer – as a good member of the family – should play (p. 138). However, the language used by the instructor in the example also pitted older siblings against younger ones, thus creating a hierarchical environment instead of a collaborative one (Shue and Beck, 2001).

Traditional Gender Roles in Dance: The Hidden Curriculum

Feminist pedagogy questions cultural assumptions in the classroom. Teachers employing methods of feminist pedagogy in the classroom often deconstruct many standard, traditional practices of dance education. They challenge the overreliance of mirrors by students, they support each student’s own voice while encouraging individuals to make connections to each other. They also question the assumptions society makes about race, gender, socioeconomic status and physical ability.

In order to fully understand how feminist pedagogy and the development of feminist content thwarts societal assumptions in dance, one must first identify what traditional gender roles develop in a typical dance class. Indeed, one must ask what do students learn about gender roles in a dance class roles, or as Doug Risner (2002) writes, “how do we as dance educators unknowingly reaffirm narrow gender stereotypes?“ (p. 64)

A closer look at invisible messages given to dance students about gender roles reveals disturbing trends: “students are learning more than teachers are consciously teaching” especially when it comes to how men and women are expected to behave and what they are expected to contribute to the art form (Stinson, 2005 p. 52). In her article The Hidden Curriculum of Gender in Dance Education, Susan Stinson (2005) explains that explicit gender roles were a common part of ballet and other Western forms of dance in the 18th century. But as Western forms of dance developed into independent programs on college campus across the nation, many educators failed to update their assumptions about the role of gender in the classroom; instead, teachers perpetuate the stereotypes created nearly 100 years earlier: “the hidden curriculum is hidden not because teachers are being intentionally deceptive, but rather because they, as well as students, are rarely aware of it. It is just ‘the way things are’ and to which we have become accustomed” (Stinson, 2005 p. 52). Stinson and others argue that dance educators must develop an awareness of how gender assumptions play out in dance classes everyday.

In American society, young girls are typically taught to be silent, obey directions and to refrain from questioning authority. In short, they are expected to be obedient followers. Unfortunately, this scenario is played out all too often in dance classrooms as well, where

students are expected to obediently follow directions, to stay ‘on task’, to avoid chatting with other students or attending to any personal needs expect those that are most pressing…. This is a common formula for producing dancers who are willing to follow the directions of the choreographers – in short, good girls who will do what they are told, with no talking back or questions about trying another way (Stinson, 2005 p. 52).

In a well-documented study by Doug Risner and fellow researchers, it was discovered that boys are often encouraged to actively participate in the creative process, either by offering suggestions for choreography, costuming, or staging while girls were generally not given the same opportunity, and “this kind of environment for girls and young women produces passive followers rather than active leaders (Stinson et al., 1990; Van Dyke, 1992) and may also contribute to further gender bias in dance (Cushway, 1996; Davis, 1999; Ferdun 1994) (Garber et al, 2007 p. ). On a related note, young female dancers are often encouraged to think of themselves through the image of their bodies (whether or not it fits the lithe, ethereal ideal of a ballerina) and quietly follow the teacher’s instructions. In extreme cases, female ballet dancers are encouraged to look exactly alike (size and shape), so as to blend in with the corps or body of the ballet company.

Critically analyzing the ways in which stereotypical gender roles are reinforced in the dance classroom doesn’t simply apply to females. What messages do dance teachers unknowingly give about the role of male students in dance? The literature suggests that young boys are encouraged to be exuberant and to direct their rambunctious energy into bigger leaps, larger jumps and quicker turns. They are encouraged to play out their physicality on stage because it represents their masculinity, their aggression and their ability to be a man (Garber et al, 2007). A study by Willis “found that boys were more likely to cover large amounts of space, used more physical energy, moved quickly, took physical risks” in a dance class as opposed to female students, who tended to move more slowly when they danced, and took up less space (Garber et al, 2007 p. 371). These students were conditioned to behave this way in large part because of assumptions dance educators made in the classroom.

Risner (2002) has also begun to analyze the ways in which traditional male gender roles in dance classes perpetuate homophobia. He cautions dance teachers from assuming that young male dancers will always be comfortable playing out stereotypical heterosexual roles in dance,

Unfortunately, dance and dance education may unwittingly reproduce asymmetrical power relationships, social inequities and sexist patriarchy by reaffirming the status quo operating in contemporary American culture. In doing so, the profession ignores vast educative opportunities for diminishing homophobia and antigay bias (2002, p. 63).

Risner (2002) also reminds educators that many male dancers who are questioning their sexuality or who are gay look to dance as a comfortable place to be themselves, but they are often confronted with an ugly truth: in a misguided attempt to widen the audience base of dance in America and to recruit more men to the field, many dance educators actively seek to enlist men from stereotypically heterosexual arenas (athletes, blue-collar workers, etc.). Such an attempt by dance educators to increase the presence of men in dance could also perpetuate a homophobic message.

Rethinking Gender Assumptions Using Feminist Pedagogy

Without a doubt, individuals who do not use feminist pedagogy could draw their own conclusions about conventional gender roles simply by evaluating traditional, authoritarian dance classrooms (Stinson, 1998). However, many do not. Garber and others (2007) write that feminist pedagogy naturally leads one to scrutinize gender construction and the “hidden curriculum” (Stinson, 2005):

Because of the particular importance situatedness the body holds in both dance and gender, dance education provides ample pedagogical space for exploring the body instrument as signifier of gender and as a personal resource that provides inspiration and ownership, and for developing a nonjudgmental process that provides alternative choices and multiple levels of expression, identification and sharing (p. 370).

Researchers have suggested that a natural link exists between feminist pedagogy and feminist content; teachers who shift away from an authoritarian perspective to an inclusive one in the classroom also tend to rethink the content of their classes through a feminist lens, which leads to not only a recognition of established gender roles present in dance classes but encourages everyone to challenge those assumptions (Stinson, 2005). One could conclude then that a critical approach to education that initially sought to challenge systems that “keep women from competing on an equal foot with men” reveals hidden messages regarding gender roles in dance (Stinson, 1998 p. 25). More importantly, one can see that both genders benefit from feminist pedagogy: students are encouraged by the teacher to move beyond gender stereotypes that exist in dance.

Does a dance teacher who uses feminist pedagogy always tell the female student’s story? In other words, is it fair to assume that feminist pedagogy in the dance classroom solely benefits female students? As the literature suggests, the answer is undeniably “no.” When a dance educator employs feminist pedagogy and thus challenges gender assumptions in the classroom, both male and female students win.

Works Cited

Desmond, J. (1999). Engendering dance: feminist inquiry and dance research. In Fraleigh, S. and Hanstein, P. (Eds). Researching dance: evolving modes of inquiry. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press.

Efland, A. D. (1990). A history of art education: intellectual and social currents in teaching the visual arts. New York: Teachers College Press.

Garber, E., & Sandell, R., & Stankiewicz, M., & Risner, D. (2007). Gender equity in visual arts and dance education. In Klein, Susan S. Ed.), Handbook for achieving gender equity through education. (pp 359-380). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Hackney, P. (2000). Making connections: total body integration through Bartenieff fundamentals. New York: Routledge.

Risner, D. (2002). Rehearsing heterosexuality: “unspoken” truths in dance education. Dance Research Journal, 34(2), 63-78. Retrieved November 19, 2009, from http//

Shue, L. L., & Beck, C. S.. (2001). Stepping out of bounds: performing feminist pedagogy within a dance education community. Communication Education, 50(2), 125-143. Retrieved November 19, 2009 from

Shapiro, S. B. (Ed.). (1998). Dance, power, and difference. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

Stankiewicz, M. (2001). Roots of art education practice. Worcester: Davis Publications.

Stinson, S. W. (2005). The hidden curriculum of gender in dance education. Journal of Dance Education, 5(2), 51-57. Retrieved November 19, 2009 from

Stinson, S. W. (1998). Seeking a feminist pedagogy for children’s dance. In S. Shapiro (Ed.) Dance, power, and difference: critical and feminist perspectives on dance education (pp. 23-47). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

Webb, L. M., Allen, M. W., & Walker, K. L. (2002). Feminist pedagogy: indentifying basic principles. Academic Exchange Quarterly, Retrieved December 5, 2009, from

[1] From Imgard Barteneiff and Bartenieff Fundamentals. The notion of yield and push exists in Bartenieff Fundamentals as a way to facilitate movement that softens into the earth through the body and movement that repels away from its source (by pushing) (Hackney, 2000). Bartenieff developed her approach to movement after studying with fellow movement analyst Rudolf Laban (Hackney, 2000). Bartenieff Fundamentals is frequently used as a somatic approach to modern dance.